Miss Elizabeth Robinson, Senior Investigator, was once nearly married to the man she loved and cruelly widowed (so to speak) before her betrothed could reach the altar. Now, she wears only black - widow's weeds - even though in the eyes of the world her mourning could decently have ended some years ago.
Queen Victoria still sits upon the throne, even if she rarely appears in public these days, amid rumours that her life is supported by steam-powered cybernetics and exotic serums extracted from the glands of monkeys. Even so, the British Empire still colours half the globe in red, and airships still rule the skies over Africa and India and the American Colonies.
At this time, Miss Robinson has returned to London after an extended sojourn in East Africa to attend to the matter of her father's unexpected and indeed untimely demise. Hitherto, she had for many years been in the employ of Her Imperial Majesty’s Government in a vital role, although it is one which may not be described here. Now she had been granted an extended leave of absence and was therefore present as a private person in the largest metropolis in the world, the capital of Great Britain and her colonies and protectorates, the city of London.
I stepped from the steam car outside the entrance to the Inns of Court, that rookery of lawyers' chambers long ago planted just outside the ancient walls of the city of London. I had arrived in the country by liner earlier that very day, not even taking the time to unpack.
I paused a moment on the street, surveying the scene. Chancery Lane was quiet at this mid-morning hour, the crush of bowler-hatted clerks on their way to their desks having subsided hours ago. There were a handful of other steam-powered vehicles, a policeman on patrol, a couple of those gaunt mechanical figures increasingly used as guards throughout the Empire, leavened by the inevitable smattering of street urchins and layabouts.
I had been trained to notice such things. Observation and anticipation were the tenets which meant the difference between success and failure, between survival and death. There was nothing obviously threatening here, I concluded, although I mentally filed away the badge numbers of the automaton and the peeler for future reference, as well as instinctively committing to memory the faces of the passers-by.
This morning I was calling on Mister Cameron Mackenzie in his chambers. He had been by father's legal advisor and an old friend of the family. Indeed, with reasonable certitude, he was aware of my father's more, shall we say, unconventional responsibilities for Her Majesty’s Government, although I was sure he would be discreet enough not to mention them to me.
I had met Mackenzie before, briefly, formally, at my father's London house, but that was many years ago when I was really still a child, and I wondered if the old man would remember me. In the event, it was clear that he did recognise me immediately, and I was gratified that he greeted me in person and ushered me directly to his private rooms. He closed the heavy baize-lined door behind us and directed me to the best chair, then took his own seat behind the ornately-carved desk of dark wood.
"My dear Miss Robinson," he said formally, "I cannot adequately express how saddened I am to hear of your father's death. So unexpected, and so recently returned from Africa, too."
I nodded sadly. I remembered my first and only voyage out to the Dark Continent to join my father, almost five years ago, travelling by airship on a slow and inexpensive route. Of course it did not matter then: the trip was an adventure, and I was young and excited by the newness of it all. The return trip was much faster - these days I could afford first class passage on the fastest liners - but under much less happy circumstances after I received that urgent telegram from Mackenzie.
I politely thanked him for his condolences, then enquired exactly what it was that required such an urgent meeting. The man allowed himself a tight smile.
"There is, I think, something of a mystery here," he said carefully, "I felt it best not to involve the Constabulary, at least until I had consulted with you. And in any case I have some strict instructions from your late father to carry out under these circumstances."
"Instructions?" I asked suspiciously, "And just what circumstances are you referring to?"
"I shall explain," Mackenzie said seriously.