The Shadow Cipher, p.1Laura Ruby
For Zoe and Oliver, my favorite adventurers
The roaring street is hung for miles
With fierce electric fire.
—WILLIAM VAUGHN MOODY, “In New York,” Part I of “Song-Flower and Poppy”
What is the city but the people?
—WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, Coriolanus
New Year’s Eve, 1855
Chapter One: Tess
Chapter Two: Theo
Chapter Three: Jaime
Chapter Four: Tess
Chapter Five: Theo
Chapter Six: Jaime
Chapter Seven: Cricket
Chapter Eight: Tess
Chapter Nine: Theo
Chapter Ten: Jaime
Chapter Eleven: Tess
Chapter Twelve: Theo
Chapter Thirteen: Jaime
Chapter Fourteen: Tess
Chapter Fifteen: Theo
Chapter Sixteen: Jaime
Chapter Seventeen: Tess
Chapter Eighteen: Jaime
Chapter Nineteen: Tess
Chapter Twenty: Tess
Chapter Twenty-One: Theo
Chapter Twenty-Two: Jaime
Chapter Twenty-Three: Tess
Chapter Twenty-Four: Theo
Chapter Twenty-Five: Jaime
Chapter Twenty-Six: Tess
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Cricket
Chapter Twenty-Eight: Jaime
Chapter Twenty-Nine: Tess
Chapter Thirty: Theo
Chapter Thirty-One: Jaime
February 13, 1861
About the Author
About the Publisher
New Year’s Eve, 1855
The true story of any city is never a single tale; it’s a vast collection of stories with many different heroes. But most storytellers believe that theirs is the only true story and that they are the only true heroes.
They are surprised to find out they are wrong.
Just a few hours before midnight, a brief hush fell over the streets of New York City, as if someone were about to tell a grand tale of mystery and adventure and needed quiet to begin. William Covington Hanover didn’t like the sudden quiet, and he already knew the story of New York City—his story. He had been in this city for barely a fortnight and had concluded it was teeming with ruffians, murderers, and thieves. That he himself was a murderer and a thief was beside the point. (And he would thrash the daylights out of anyone who called him a ruffian.)
No, the point was that William Covington Hanover didn’t look like a murderer or a thief. He had pride. He had standards. On this fine winter evening, the air aflutter with new snow, he wore a crisp white shirt with a pleated front, a white cravat, a dark tailcoat, and clean trousers. His top hat added to his already considerable height, and his fine wool greatcoat swept behind him like the regimentals of a British general.
Which was why pretty Miss Ava Oneal had no idea he’d been shadowing her for seven blocks.
And why would she? His was a stylish ensemble pinched from his last employer, the profoundly nearsighted Lord Something-or-Other of Somewhere-upon-Avon, who never seemed to notice when the candlesticks and silverware went missing. Until the day he did notice, causing an ill-advised tussle over a serving fork. William was forced to stuff his spoils into a pillowcase and steal aboard a packet bound for this strange city with its even stranger inhabitants. Ruffians, murderers, thieves . . . and fools. When the ship had docked in America, and he’d informed the immigration officials at Castle Garden that his name was “William Covington Hanover,” he was joking. Who would believe a man who had spent months crammed into a boat with shoemakers and potato farmers was a member of the House of Hanover, same as Queen Victoria? But they had merely scratched his quip in a ledger and waved him on.
And on he went. Through Battery Park and into the cauldron of the Five Points neighborhood, where he found lodging in a cramped tenement that reeked of gin fumes and rancid cabbage. Not much to steal in the Five Points, and far too much to drink. It didn’t take long for him to migrate into the heart of the city, where the shining Morningstarr Tower stood like a beacon to everything that he had desired his whole life and all that he deserved: riches and power beyond his wildest imaginings (though, honestly, just the riches would do).
Now he was on the upper west side of the island, where the wealthy had recently built rows of fine houses as well as some grand estates complete with lawns and forest. Most of the coppers stayed south near the Five Points, but a few wandered north to protect the wealthy from, well, people like William Covington Hanover. William nodded at the coppers on the corner, tipped his hat to the groups of ladies gathered to climb into horse-drawn carriages that would bear them to this ball or that one.
“Good evening, ladies,” he said, in his best upper-crust English accent. “You are the picture of loveliness this magical night.”
“Good evening to you, sir,” said the boldest. The ladies giggled as he passed, eyes darting over his fine coat, his fair hair, his ready smile. As long as he didn’t get close enough for any of them to notice his cold-and-whiskey-reddened nose or the knife scars on his white cheeks, he was safe. He would appear to be like any other gentleman making his way to a New Year’s Eve celebration instead of a man pursuing a dream in the form of Miss Ava Oneal.
Miss Ava was dressed less opulently—and more strangely—than the other ladies. Despite the festive occasion, she wore a plain jacket buttoned all the way up to the neck, a long dark skirt and cloak, and a mannish hat nearly as tall as William’s. But her outfit was not the most remarkable thing about her. Nor was it her small stature, her flawless brown face, or the fact that she walked unescorted through the swirling, sparkling snow. It wasn’t even that she was reading a book in the dim light of the streetlamps as she went. No, it was Miss Ava Oneal’s employers who most intrigued him.
Employers by the names of Theresa and Theodore Morningstarr.
Miss Ava reached the corner and floated across the street, never lifting her gaze from her pages, though more than one coachman had to haul on the reins of his horses to keep from trampling her. The coppers watched her go, twirling their clubs, whispering amongst themselves. And the others watched her, too. William spied them everywhere; only the coppers could miss them. Rough men in gangs like the Dead Rabbits—or was it the Dead Roaches?—men who called themselves ludicrous things like Slobbery Jim and Patsy the Butcher, et cetera, et cetera. They lurked in alleys and in doorways, behind walls and trees, clad in oversized sack coats and tiny bowler hats the size of thimbles. William shook his head in disgust. In such a costume, you might as well stand in the middle of the avenue and shout: “Rich citizens of the city! Prepare to be bashed over the head and shaken like apple trees!”
William Covington Hanover would never make such an exhibition of himself. An Englishman valued subtlety; a Yank wanted spectacle. As if this city didn’t have enough spectacle. The Morningstarr Tower, for one. The Liberty Statue. The oddly named Underway, a dizzying nest of above- and belowground trolleys whose workings were so mysterious that only members of a secret guild were permitted to mind the system. The rich kept their horses and carriages just for show.
At that moment, William Covington Hanover would have been grateful for a ride in a carriage or on the Underway, as Miss Ava Oneal seemed determined to march the entire length of the island of Manhattan this cold winter’s evening. Or perhaps she simply wanted to finish her book. The newspapers said she was a very smart young lady; Miss Morningstarr met Miss Oneal while both were wo
But in addition to being smart, William was irritated to note, Miss Oneal was also a very brisk walker. William sighed and increased his pace, taking only a moment to glare at a man with a face like a pickax, who was eyeing her with a little too much interest. The man took William’s measure and wisely retreated into the shadows.
Miss Ava Oneal walked another block and pivoted right. William trotted to keep up, turning the corner just as a coachman barked, a horse whickered, and another carriage full of ladies rumbled off to a midnight party. The sharp odor of fresh manure cut through the chill. Almost as suddenly, a round hatch opened in the middle of the street and two beetles crawled out—if beetles were the size of sheepdogs and made of shimmering, iridescent-green metal. The beetles skittered across the snow-frosted cobbles toward the pile of manure and, working together, packed the scattered pile into a neat, round ball. Then one of the beetles turned around and used its hind legs to roll the ball backward into the hatch. Both beetles vanished after the ball, and the hatch closed. The entire process took only a few moments.
William Covington Hanover had seen the Rollers many times, but he still wasn’t used to them. Unnatural, they were, those glittering, skittering machines. Another invention of the Morningstarrs: brother and sister, twins, geniuses. They had designed the shining Morningstarr Tower, the incandescent Starr Hotel. Built impossible bridges and the greenest of parks. Engineered the Underway. Paved the streets in strange, silvery cobblestones that somehow absorbed the power of the sun, spun shimmering window glass that did the same, and forged the Lion batteries that contained it all. Created all manner of Morningstarr Machines, including the Rollers that tidied the roads, mechanical snails that washed the windows, whirring dragonflies that did everything from drying shirts to cooling people in summer. For fifty-seven years, the Morningstarrs had performed architectural and mechanical wizardry to make New York City the most dazzling city in the world, or so New Yorkers claimed. And after seeing the gleaming metropolis of the future for himself, William begrudgingly had to agree. (Though he was certain Theodore, not Theresa, was the true genius behind all this invention, as ladies were much more suited to embroidering cushions and giggling at tall men.)
But, four weeks ago, Theresa and Theodore Morningstarr had disappeared into the labyrinth of the Morningstarr Tower, and hadn’t been seen or heard from since. Before they vanished, the twins deeded all their land and property to a trust in the city’s name and left the city a parting gift: a sort of puzzle, or treasure hunt. The first clue, some string of incomprehensible gibberish, was printed in the newspaper. That clue would lead to another clue, the newspaper headlines howled, and another and another and would eventually reveal the greatest treasure known to man. The treasure only waited for a treasure hunter clever enough to discover it.
Well, William Covington Hanover was clever enough to know a joke when he saw one. A treasure hunt! What nonsense! Some great game the Morningstarrs played with an unwitting public, a public currently poring over the paper and then racing from one building to another on a wild-goose chase.
But the Morningstarrs had also left not a small sum of money in trust to Miss Ava Oneal, the young woman they had hired as help but looked upon as a granddaughter. And if anyone knew the secrets of the Morningstarrs—if anyone knew where the real treasures were hidden—it was her.
And because William Covington Hanover was a gentleman—or, at least, dressed like one—he would ask her nicely.
After that, he intended to bleed her secrets out of her.
Subtlety could take a man only so far.
Miss Ava Oneal continued walking until the elegant houses grew farther and farther apart, hidden by thickets of trees. When she reached West 73rd Street, Miss Ava finally slowed in front of a tall building with a light gray facade and surrounded on either side by two more nondescript buildings. He might not have known the center building to be a Morningstarr building except for the letters “TTM” etched into the cornerstones. Perhaps this was Miss Ava’s home, bequeathed to her by her benefactors. It was a pretty enough structure, so far west that William smelled the rich, oily stew of the Hudson River even in the cold. But William Covington Hanover had his sights set on bigger things, gold and silver and shiny—
“May I help you?”
William stopped walking so abruptly he slid on those odd icy cobbles and had to pinwheel his arms for balance.
Miss Ava Oneal stood staring at him. “Are you looking for someone? You’ve been following me for some time.”
William shaped his voice into that same plummy accent. “Following you? My dear lady, I assure you that I—”
“That’s quite a coat. Who did you steal it from?”
“I beg your pardon! I was a general in the queen’s army and—”
“No doubt,” she said rather rudely, just like an American. But she was very pretty. Doe-eyed, full-lipped, that brown skin so smooth. She had to be at least twenty-five years old, but she looked younger. Seventeen? Eighteen?
He switched tactics, smiling and spreading his arms. “I confess. I couldn’t help but notice that you traveled unescorted. And even this beautiful city can be a dangerous place for a young woman.”
“So I’ve heard,” she said, returning his smile. “And you mean to protect me?”
“Indeed,” he said, warming to the part. “Let me introduce myself. My name is William Covington Hanover.”
“William Hanover!” She tucked her book beneath one arm and clapped her hands. “You don’t say!”
“I do say!”
“Well, yes. I mean, thank you, dear lady.” He took another step toward her, then another, in order to loom more properly.
“Did you have a disagreement with a cat, Mr. Hanover?” Miss Ava murmured, peering up under thick lashes at his scars.
“War takes its toll on us all,” he said. “Please allow me to see you inside. I would rest so much more easy knowing that such a handsome young woman arrived safely at her destination.”
“You are delightful,” said Miss Ava Oneal.
He couldn’t help it; his smile deepened to a grin. “Thank you again.”
“Much more delightful than the others.”
His smile wavered. “The . . . others?”
“The other men who have followed me. The ones given to clubbing people over the head and dragging them into dark alleys. Do you know one of them had the nerve to propose to me after he threatened to cut out my eyes? I said no.”
William’s jaw dropped. Ava Oneal withdrew her book from the folds of her cloak, placed the book beneath his chin, and gently closed his mouth.
“Gentlemen don’t threaten to cut ladies’ eyes out. It simply isn’t done. Not even in this book, which is quite scandalous. Have you read Penelope?” She tilted the book so that he could read the cover.
But unless he needed kindling, William Covington Hanover had no use for books. “I can’t say I’ve heard of it, Miss Oneal,” he said, holding out his elbow. “Now, let’s get you out of this chill.”
“Ah, you know my name.”
“My name. You know it.” She tapped his chest with her book. “You were following me.”
Enough of this, he thought, and slapped the book from her hand. It slammed into the stone of the building and dropped into the thin crust of snow on the ground.
“Oh,” said Miss Ava, eyes widening.
“Oh,” he said, taking another step closer. “I have a few questions for you.”
“Oh?” she repeated, reaching up and laying a small hand on his shoulder. She ran that hand down the length of his arm, curling her slim fingers around his pinky. Her full lips parted. As if she wanted to kiss him.
Then he heard the snap of
He only had time to emit a strangled squeal before she kicked him in the kneecap and swept his feet out from under him as easily as if she were tumbling a puppy.
“That,” she said, with a click of the tongue, “is no way to treat Penelope. Or me, for that matter.” Her eyes shifted in the dim light, pupils shining like gunmetal.
He scrabbled backward, pinky burning, shattered kneecap screaming. How could such a slight girl have wounded him so badly, and so fast? “Wait . . . wait . . . you can’t . . .”
She advanced on him, floating in that strange way of hers. “And yet, I did.”
“This cannot be real.”
“Oh, I’m as real as anyone. And I am always and forever a lady.” Miss Ava bent close, smiling at him with gleaming pearly teeth. “Would you like to see what kind of lady I am, Mr. William Covington Hanover? The others didn’t like it, but perhaps you might.”
“No,” William huffed, barely able to get the words from his throat because his heart had crawled up inside it. “No. Leave me be. I won’t bother you anymore.”
“It’s no bother.”
“Please,” William said, exactly what Lord Something-or-Other had said before the serving fork had found its mark. “Please.”
She opened her mouth wide and William squeezed his eyes shut, sure she would tear him to bits, roll him up, drop him in a deep dark hole.
Instead, she screamed, a loud, piercing, ladylike shriek. “Help me! Oh, won’t somebody help me!”
His eyes flashed open in confusion.
Miss Ava Oneal scooped up her book and slapped his face with it, punctuating each word, “Cad! Beast! Ruffian!”
One minute the street was dark and empty; the next, coppers boiled out from the alleys and the woods and poured down the streets, as if they’d expected some trouble, as if they’d expected this trouble.
He was wondering how far one could run on a ruined knee when a copper shouted, “Get him, lads!”
It was no use, they were coming, they were here. William Covington Hanover—murderer, thief, and not much of a ruffian—threw his arms over his head. As the clubs rained down, the last thing he saw was Miss Ava Oneal. She brushed the ice from the cover of her book, straightened her skirt, and stepped through the doorway of 354 West 73rd Street, taking with her all the secrets of the Morningstarrs, and every one of her own.
The Shadow Cipher by Laura Ruby / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes