The Emperor of All Things - By Paul Witcover Page 0,1

twelve feet away swung open. Out stepped a gentleman of middling height wearing a powdered wig and an elegant sky-blue coat over a lace-adorned white shirt and embroidered waistcoat, yellow breeches with pale blue hose, and embroidered green silk slippers. His powdered face glowed corpse white in the moonlight; a conspicuous beauty mark adorned his left cheek, and his lips were as red as cherries half sunk in a bowl of cream. He had the look of extreme age masquerading as youth … or perhaps it was the other way around. But the most striking feature of his appearance was the cocked duelling pistol that he held in the most negligent manner imaginable, as though it was by the merest chance that this object happened to be pointing at the breast of the intruder. ‘So good of you to drop in, Grimalkin,’ he drawled.

The hooded figure executed a slight but meticulous bow. ‘Lord Wichcote.’

‘I had thought you retired – or dead.’

‘Merely … elsewhere. Now, as you see, I have returned.’

‘And come to pay me a visit. I’m honoured. But my guests generally call at the front door. Many of them are thieves, it is true, but few take the trouble to mask themselves. Are you a coward, sir?’

‘Simply modest, my lord,’ answered the one addressed as Grimalkin.

‘Why, damn me if you are not a smooth-tongued rascal! But I will see who is beneath that mask.’ He gestured with the pistol. ‘Remove it, sir.’

‘As your lordship can see, my hands are occupied at present.’

‘Then I suggest you un-occupy them.’

‘Gladly, but your pistol is making me somewhat nervous.’

‘Afraid it might go off? You should be.’

‘I am more concerned that, in my nervousness, I might drop the clock.’

The tremor that shook the hand holding the pistol was evident in the man’s voice as well. ‘If you damage that clock, sir, I will kill you.’

‘Such is already your intent, is it not?’

‘Even if it were, some deaths are less pleasant than others. Now, set the clock down, sir. Gently.’

‘Since you will shoot me the instant I do so, that would be most foolish.’

‘Perhaps I will shoot you in any case.’

‘I think not. Even a steady hand is no guarantee of accuracy at this distance, in this poor light, and your hand is far from steady. Should you fire, you are as likely to strike the clock as to strike me. And if you do strike me, why, then I will drop the clock after all, and your precious timepiece will suffer the very damage you seek to avoid.’

‘I would sooner see it destroyed than give it up to you and your masters.’

‘I serve no masters,’ Grimalkin stated.

This provoked a laugh. ‘Come now, sir. It is common knowledge that you are, or at any rate used to be, an agent of those confounded meddlers, the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers.’

‘Common knowledge often masks uncommon ignorance.’

‘Hmph. How else would you know the value of that particular timepiece?’

‘Why, half of London knows it, sir, the way you have been broadcasting your acquisition of it! Indeed, the wonder is that no one has got here before me.’

‘It was to entice you to my workshop that I spoke so freely,’ Lord Wichcote said. ‘I had heard rumours of your return, and wished to see for myself.’

‘That was obvious. Still, I am nothing if not curious. And so I accepted your lordship’s invitation. I take it you are not normally in the habit of leaving the skylight unlocked, or your treasures unguarded.’

‘Most assuredly not.’

Grimalkin bowed again, making a mocking flourish with the blade, then straightened and said: ‘In that case, put up your pistol, sir. I do not think you have gone to so much trouble merely to kill me.’

Lord Wichcote cackled. ‘I like you, sir, damned if I do not!’ He kept the pistol pointed at the other’s chest, however. ‘Very well then: to business. It happens that I am an admirer of your peculiar talents. I have followed your career, if I may term it such, with avid interest, despite your efforts to cover your trail. Your pursuit of rare and unusual timepieces has led you from far Cathay to the New World and everywhere in between. The mysterious Grimalkin – the grey shadow whose identity is known to no man! Some say you are of noble, even royal blood. Others maintain you are naught but a brash commoner. Still others hold that you are no man at all, but a devil sworn to the service of Lucifer.’

Grimalkin shrugged.

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