London, March 3rd, 1908
There were several things that everyone who knew Phil Coulson agreed on: he liked order, he liked stability, and he avoided the unexpected at every opportunity. Not all of that was strictly true, but his love of order was accurate.
Not many people could appreciate the joy of an orderly ledger and most people failed to see how reading neat lines of numbers could possibly constitute an enjoyable day's activity. The books currently on Coulson's desk were the best example of fine record keeping he'd seen in years. It was almost a pleasure to be working through such a beautifully written set of accounts. Even his estate manager, Sitwell, didn't produce figures as precisely detailed as these.
The only slight problem was that he didn't believe a single line of them.
Coulson carefully ran a finger down the column of numbers, following the pattern that was finally starting to emerge. His eyes were burning from working on them since early morning and there was a dull ache in his back due to the long day hunched over his desk. But he was finally seeing the full picture and the neat columns of figures were giving up their secrets. It was a story filled with deceit, bribes, and opium dens, which had begun with several children getting sick after drinking tonics their mothers bought from a snake oil salesman. None of them had died and they were poor enough to be barely one step out of the workhouse so the police had no interest in investigating. That was where Coulson had stepped in, carefully watching and tracking the salesman and his associates and stumbling into something much bigger than tonics made with river water and dubiously obtained chemicals. He'd traced shipments and followed carts around London and now he could see how the money for the gang's legitimate shipping business masked all the less legitimate goods they traded in. Tomorrow he would have an airtight case to send to Scotland Yard just in time for the police to raid a certain warehouse before the latest opium shipment could be moved out.
Not that they'd ever know he'd been the one who put it all together for them. That was much too dangerous. But he took pride in ensuring that every case and criminal he sent their way deserved their fate and couldn't escape it, either.
He pulled a fresh piece of paper closer, picked up his pen, and he had just dipped the nib into the ink pot when there was a firm rap on the door. Coulson sighed and put down his pen, sliding the paper partially over the open books a moment before the door opened.
His housekeeper, Mrs Driver, was still putting the last pin in her hat when she entered and Coulson suppressed a wince. Time had got away from him and he hadn't realised how late it was growing. Now that he'd been distracted from his work, he could see that the sky outside his window was starting to turn pink on the horizon and his study had grown so dark it was a miracle he'd been able to see to read. Perhaps that explained in part why his eyes were aching so badly.
As always, Mrs Driver tutted at him and gingerly flicked the light switch. Despite a year of being connected to the new electricity supply, she was still deeply suspicious and half convinced that it would burn the house down one day. Coulson privately felt it was safer than the gas lamps had been but Mrs Driver would never be convinced. She eyed anything electric with deep suspicion and regularly left advertisements for the latest steam-powered or clockwork gadgets on his desk. She wasn't the only person who felt that way, sadly, which was why Coulson's house was still the only one in Walden Square with electricity.
"I'm off home now, sir," she said briskly. "I've left some cold beef in the kitchen in case you change your mind about dining in your club."
"I won't," Coulson said mildly.
Mrs Driver hesitated before reaching into her coat pocket to take out a white envelope and offer it to him. "I wrote this all up neatly, sir, I know how much you like an orderly letter. It's my resignation. I'll stay 'til the end of the month and, if you don’t mind, I've a young niece who can come in most days and clean for you after I've left."
Coulson had known, in a way, that this was coming but he still had to take a breath before saying, "If there's anything I've done-"
"Oh, no sir, don't think that!" Mrs Driver said quickly. "Mr Coulson, you've been an excellent master. You really have. It's just...my sister has come into a small house down on the coast and she's asked me to live with her. I'm getting on now and it would be nice to have a few easy years before I join my George."
"Oh." Coulson allowed a small, gentle smile to reassure her. "Of course, you have to take your chance when you're offered one. If there's anything you need, please let me know."
"I'll be fine, sir." Mrs Driver frowned. "Except...sir, it's time you replaced Mr Gowan. My Daisy can clean and she can cook a little, she'll do for a housemaid after I'm gone, but you need a proper valet again. I'll not have my Daisy working on your shirts or answering the door; she's young and impressionable and shouldn't be doing such for a gentleman. Even one as respectable as you."
"Good valets are hard to find, Mrs Driver," Coulson said.
"Hmm. They're even harder to find if you don't look. Mr Gowan's been gone for six months and you haven't even put a notice in the paper." Mrs Driver fixed him with a glare. "You need to find a new valet, sir, or you'll be looking for a maid as well."
Coulson sighed. "I'll try."
"You'll do more than try, sir," Mrs Driver said firmly. "I've got a young man you could try, my George's sister's son. He's not trained but he's good with an iron and a needle, he can cook and the rest he can learn quickly enough. I can send him over tomorrow for you to look over, if you'd like. Edith ran off with an American so he'll have some bad influences, but I'm sure you can train him out of them."
"Sometimes I wonder who is the employer and who is the employee in our relationship," Coulson said.
Mrs Driver snorted. "Then you'll be pleased when I'm gone and you have young Daisy and your new valet to order about."
"I'll see him tomorrow," Coulson said. "I promise."
"Good." Mrs Driver nodded. "Then I've said my piece and I'll be getting home."
"Good night," Coulson said.
She was still chuckling and tutting as she left and Coulson sat back in his chair for a moment. In a lot of ways she was right, he did need a new valet. Or a manservant of some kind, anyway, if only to keep the gossips from whispering about him and his unconventional household. On the other hand, it had been much easier to keep his night-time activities secret for the last few months with the house empty after Mrs Driver left. A live-in man of any kind would make his life much more complicated and it was that as much as his dislike for change which had kept him from making inquiries with agencies or putting a notice in the paper.
Coulson rubbed his tired eyes and put the thought aside. He had much more important things to see to for now, starting with copying the relevant parts of the ledgers he'd 'borrowed' and needed to return tonight before anyone noticed they were missing. As long as his targets held to their usual habits, nobody should be going into the warehouse where the ledgers were kept until tomorrow.
He pulled his clean sheet of paper closer, dipped his pen in the ink and started writing.
Coulson's club was Chester's, located on St. James's Street with many of the other gentlemen's clubs. He'd chosen it when he was a young man because it was radical, progressive, and as different from his father's club, Boodle's, as anyone could imagine it. For a young man trying to make his own way and throw off the old traditions, Chester's was perfect. Coulson had quietly enjoyed the way his father's eye twitched whenever the subject of clubs and friends was raised.
There would have been more value in not joining a club at all, Coulson sometimes reflected with the benefit of twenty years' hindsight. More value in a moral sense, perhaps. The contacts and network Chester's provided, however, were a benefit that couldn't quite be estimated so he continued to pay his subscriptions and show his face around the place regularly.
Chester's also had fine chefs and excellent whiskey, both of which Coulson was looking forward to when his cab stopped at the doors. He nodded to the doorman as he entered and surrendered his coat and hat while exchanging pleasantries with the coat clerk. Several acquaintances smiled as he passed them on his way to his favourite chair in the common room. The large room was always set with small groups of comfortable armchairs, arranged to allow members to feel almost like they had privacy while they talked, and there were large fireplaces at either end.
Coulson's usual waiter approached just as he was sitting down. Evans already had a glass of whiskey on a silver server for him and Coulson took it with a respectful nod for Evans' thoughtfulness.
"Will you be dining with us tonight, sir?" Evans asked. "We have a roast of beef or a pheasant pie, if you'd please. We can bring it in here or I can set up your usual table in the dining room."
Coulson smiled and said, "I'll have some of the pie, Evans, and I'll take it here."
With a nod and a bow, Evans hurried away and Coulson took an appreciative sniff of the whiskey. There was a fire in the hearth nearby chasing away the dampness in the spring air and everything was warm and comfortable. Sometimes Coulson couldn't quite remember why he stubbornly refused to simply take rooms in the club like some of his older friends and give up the house completely.
The pie was as good as promised. Coulson had only taken a few bites when there was a slight lift in the buzz of quiet conversation around the room. He looked up and spotted an old friend striding across the room.
Fury was exactly the kind of man Boodle's rejected and therefore precisely the kind of man Coulson had come to Chester's to find all those years ago. Even if his skin colour and missing eye hadn't been against him, his profession wasn't respectable. He was no gentleman of independent means or even a banker.
Nick Fury was the head of a small and very secretive branch of the Metropolitan police. In the eyes of anyone at Boodle's he was little better than a tradesman, even if he was wealthy from a large inheritance.
In the eyes of most members of Chester's, he was Detective Inspector Fury of SHIELD and therefore he was one of their prized assets.
"Coulson!" Fury said as he approached.
Coulson stood and held out a hand. "It's good to see you."
There was another chair near Coulson's. Fury sat down and stretched out his legs, gesturing for Coulson to continue his meal. Evans materialised at Fury's side with a glass of whisky and a murmured offer of food, which Fury declined with an impatient wave.
"How are you?" Fury asked after Evans left. "We always seem to be passing each other lately. It feels like months since we last talked properly."
"You haven't missed much," Coulson said mildly. "The most exciting development is my estate manager's obsession with these new automaton creatures. Sitwell sends me a catalogue each week and his latest scheme is to replace the fruit pickers with a dozen of the things. He can't seem to accept that I won't have them on my land."
Fury grunted. "I don't blame you. Those things are unnerving; you can't see how they work. They just...do things because people tell them to. How do we know they won't take it into their tin heads to go and do something we didn't want them to do? At least they don't blow up as often as steam cars, but they're still not something I'd want in my house."
"I'll let Sitwell install them as fruit pickers before I'll let one into a house," Coulson said firmly as he scraped up his last mouthful of pie.
"Wise decision," Fury said. "Until someone can assure me they're safe, I won't have one in my department. Bad enough they're forcing a steam car on me, I won't have an automaton making the tea as well."
Coulson sat back with a satisfied sigh and sipped his brandy. "Sometimes I worry that progress is leaving us behind. When did we get this old?"
Fury snorted. "Progress isn't leaving you behind, it's just going down a different route. One that doesn't include your electricity."
"One that doesn't care about safety."
"You've got that right."
They sat in companionable silence for a while before Coulson said, "Mrs Driver is retiring."
"You sound surprised," Fury commented.
Until he said it, Coulson hadn't realised how much his talk with Mrs Driver was still on his mind. He wasn't sure whether he was more disturbed by the idea of having to add someone new to his household or the prospect of losing someone who had been there for his entire adult life.
"I supposed that I forgot she was getting older," Coulson said.
"What will you do?" Fury asked.
"She wants me to replace Gowan," Coulson said with a wry smile. "I think she feels that the combination of a new Gowan and her niece hiring on as my housemaid will be more than enough for my lifestyle in London."
"You've been without a valet for six months. People are talking about you." Fury grinned, the expression somehow intimidating with his eye patch. "Mostly speculating on how you've been able to maintain your appearance on your own, of course."
"I've agreed to interview a nephew of hers," Coulson said, ignoring the sly comment. "He's untrained and he'll probably be worse than useless, but at least he'll stop the gossips."
Fury shrugged. "Your set loves to gossip. They'll find something else to talk about as soon as you hire him."
"Just be grateful that nobody expects you to keep a man around just to iron your shirts and knot your ties."
"I'm thankful for it every day," Fury said firmly. "Although some days, a life where all I have to worry about is my valet and my housekeeper would be preferable to my job."
Coulson took a small sip of his brandy and tried to appear casual. "Are you still no closer to catching the vigilante?"
"Fuck no," Fury said. "And he delivered another neatly wrapped present to my department two weeks ago that we're still filling out the paperwork on. Not that I have time to do anything about catching him when I'm pulling bodies out of the Thames every couple of days."
"Bodies?" Coulson asked.
"The newspapers don't have this yet," Fury warned. "We've managed to keep it quiet so far."
"My lips are sealed."
"If I see this on the front page of the Telegraph, you'll be the man I blame whether you talked to them or not."
"I'll take that risk," Coulson said.
Fury sighed and sank down a little in his chair. "Buy me a drink, then. I'll need it, this one is twisted. First one washed up a couple of weeks ago and we've had two more since."
Coulson signalled to Evans, who was standing unobtrusively near the door, and settled in to listen with an expression carefully gauged to convey interest but not too much interest.
It was well after midnight when Coulson left the club and hailed a hansom cab. He made a show of looking slightly drunk when he collected his coat and hat, but any hints of tipsiness left the moment he settled into his seat. The driver gave him a knowing look when Coulson gave his directions and flicked his whip to get the horse into a quick trot. At this time of night the streets of London weren't deserted, but most of the traffic was from horse-drawn carriages and cabs instead of the noisy steam cars that had begun to dominate the roads over the last few years. The familiar clop of hooves on stone and the rattle of the wheels were soothing and familiar. If Coulson hadn't been tense with anticipation, he probably would have drifted to sleep from the gentle sway of the carriage and the rhythmic sounds of its progress.
He smelled the docks before the cab reached them, that stench of rotting seaweed and mud so thick in the air it might have made him retch if he hadn't been used to it. The hansom rolled to a stop in a street that was still brightly lit and filled with people laughing raucously and stumbling into gutters. Coulson pretended to miss his footing as he clambered out of the cab and handed up his payment to the driver. He received a lewd wink and a grin and then the vehicle rattled away.
A girl in a shabby dress approached him almost before the cab had turned the corner. She grinned up at him, revealing two missing front teeth, and Coulson shook his head firmly. There was a flicker of disappointment in her eyes before she moved on and Coulson resisted the urge to call her back, give her some money anyway. She'd probably spend it on gin or something stronger and go back to the streets the moment her coin ran out. In the early days he'd tried to help that way, until he'd realised that he could spend all his money and never make more than the smallest dent in the problem.
Coulson passed brothels and taverns as he made his way down the street, ignoring the pleas and flirtatious glances from the women standing in doorways and hanging out of windows as much as he could. There'd been a time when he'd visited streets like this, trying to make himself feel the way other men did, but he'd realised quickly it wouldn't work. When he'd served in the army, he'd become known as the officer who was too good for the local whores and too prudish for a mistress. After the army, when he'd been searching for a way to do some good in the world, he'd remembered his early years and briefly thought about standing for Parliament. That was supposed to be the way men made a difference, but he'd lost his appetite for the idea after meeting some of his father's old friends and concluding that the only way to get anywhere in politics was to become as corrupt as they were. So he'd chosen a different way instead.
The noise and bright lights faded behind him as Coulson drew closer to the docks and entered the quieter warehouse district. Here the street lamps had been put out hours ago and the smell of tar and oil almost overwhelmed the rotting seaweed reek.
During daylight hours these streets would be busy with carts and dockworkers but now they were empty. Coulson ducked into an alley and through a narrow door into a room he'd been renting for the last few weeks. It was damp and the walls were rotting but it was good enough to store the odds of clothing and equipment he'd needed over the last few weeks. He drew a bag from its hiding place behind a broken crate and began pulling out clothes. Within a few minutes, respectable Mr Philip Coulson of Walden Square had been replaced by a man dressed all in black, from his bag-like cloth mask and old hat to his long canvas coat. The bag, now filled with his evening clothes, was pushed back behind the crate with his good hat placed carefully on top.
Coulson jogged through the maze of streets and alleys around the warehouses until he arrived at his target. Everything was silent and still, exactly as he'd planned, but he took several minutes to watch from an alley anyway just in case. Satisfied that there was nobody around, he darted out and ran to crouch under a metal staircase that led up the side of the building he was interested in. No alarms were raised, everything stayed quiet.
Soft as a cat, Coulson moved out and began padding silently up the metal staircase. His rubber-soled shoes made no noise and a casual observer might have though the dark shape moving up the side of the warehouse was just a shadow, perhaps from a cloud crossing the moon far overhead.
He ignored the door at the top of the staircase. It was chained shut from the inside and there was no point in even trying it. People never considered windows, though, especially if the window was above a thirty foot drop and only a mad man would try to edge along a narrow ledge to get to it.
Coulson wasn't mad, but he had an excellent sense of balance and no fear of heights so the ledge and window were no trial to him. He was inside in moments, crouching while he listened for any sign that he'd been heard when he dropped lightly to the floor.
There was no sound and Coulson took a careful deep breath, trying to let some of the tension bleed away. Everything was going smoothly, too smoothly, and that always made him nervous.
The room he'd broken into was filled with bits of broken furniture and empty crates. He moved silently through it and paused at the door, listening for a long moment, before slipping out into the hallway beyond. Out there he was blind, no windows to let in even the faint moonlight, and so he pulled a small electric lamp from his deep coat pocket. It only took a minute to crank the handle set into the base until a small bulb slowly flickered alight on the top, giving just enough light so he didn't trip over anything. The office he needed was further down on the other side of the hallway and it was unlocked, which meant nobody had noticed that he'd broken in the last time. Coulson smiled to himself and pressed a switch to put a shutter over the lamp before he opened the door and went inside.
Moonlight flooded this office from a wide window so it was easy, fast work to find the hidden compartment under the desk and replace the ledger he'd 'borrowed' last night. Coulson was back in the storeroom a few minutes later, silently congratulating himself on a successful night, when he heard a noise.
It was coming from downstairs and Coulson's heart raced. Nobody was supposed to be in the warehouse tonight. According to the information he'd gathered, it should be another two days before the opium was due to be collected. He'd timed this perfectly, intending to deliver the evidence to Scotland Yard in an unmarked parcel so Fury and his men could raid the place while the contraband was still here.
And now there was someone downstairs.
Coulson debated with himself for a moment before giving into curiosity and going back in to the hallway. This time he didn't open the shutter on his lamp, relying on his memory and sense of direction to quietly creep down the hall to the inner staircase. He was halfway down when he noticed the darkness was slowly giving away to a brightening light. Coulson froze and ducked down, blood thundering in his ears.
Three men were at the far end of the warehouse holding up oil lamps. From his vantage point Coulson could see over the crates and boxes, and he watched as the men argued in hushed, vicious tones. Their voices were too low for Coulson to make out words but their gestures were enough to tell him that two of the men were protesting at something the third was telling them. They were dressed as dockworkers and Coulson was too far away to see their faces clearly, although he was fairly certain that wouldn't have helped: he'd been watching the men in charge, memorising their names and faces, not the labourers they employed.
He hoped that wouldn't be a costly mistake.
Coulson hardly dared to breathe as he watched the men argue, afraid to move in case it gave his position away. The one who had been trying to give orders turned away and that proved to be fatal: one of the other men picked up something that looked long and heavy and clubbed him over the head with it. A moment later, the other men flung their lamps deep into the piles of boxes and ran.
Flames flared up, catching and consuming the wood with hungry ferocity. They spread fast, much faster than they should, and Coulson swore under his breath. This was a complication he hadn't expected.
He began to turn, intending to retreat the way he'd come, but a glimpse of movement caught his eye and he stopped. Something had moved under the rickety stairs. The warehouse should have been empty, no guards had ever been stationed, but Coulson heard a quiet cough and he couldn't leave until he'd checked.
He called himself ten kinds of fool and ran down the stairs. There was no sense in concealing himself anymore; the flames were racing through the warehouse and anyone who might have been able to see him through the smoke was long gone. Not everyone, he corrected himself, but everyone who had legitimate business in the warehouse.
In the red light of the fire, Coulson was able to see a dark shape crawling out from behind the boxes that had been stacked below the stairs. He couldn't make out much detail, only that it was a man with broad shoulders and a battered bowler hat pulled low on his brow. The man wasn't wearing a jacket or a tie, not even a collar, and he reared back as Coulson approached.
"We need to get out of here," Coulson said, shouting to be heard out over the roar of approaching flames.
"I'd figured that out already," the man said. "What the fuck did you do?"
There was a hint of an American accent in his voice. He started to turn back to the boxes under the stairs but Coulson caught his arm, trying to tug him away.
"There's no time," Coulson tried again. "We need to get out."
"Not without my stuff," the man shouted.
He threw off Coulson's hand and dived between the boxes, emerging a moment later with a duffle bag and a long, thin leather case. The air was getting too hot and Coulson knew they didn't really have time for this but the man was clutching his things with white-knuckled hands and Coulson somehow knew that those bags were all he had in the world.
"How did you get in?" he asked.
The man nodded to a door set in the wall opposite the bottom of the stairs. "Through there. It was unlocked, figured this would be a good place to spend the night. Didn't count on you burning the fucking warehouse down."
"It wasn't me," Coulson said.
"Warehouse burning down around me and a man in a black mask," the man said with a shrug. "Not hard to put it all together."
Coulson ignored him and ran over to the door. The flames were getting closer, fuelled now by bales of fabric that made perfect fodder for their hunger. When he'd been watching the warehouse this door had usually been locked and he'd never considered it as an access for his night-time visits. Apparently someone had forgotten to lock it earlier. Coulson tried the door and swore under his breath: the handle turned easily but it refused to open and he could hear the rattle of chains when he tried to push.
He hurried back to the stairs and began to climb. "We can't get out that way, we'll have to get out the way I came in."
"Up there?" the man asked incredulously.
Coulson didn't reply, he just ran. Up the stairs, through the hallway that was now lit by the flames from below, and into the storeroom filled with broken things. He was halfway out of the window when the stranger stumbled through the door, coughing and swearing like a sailor. The thick mask was keeping the worse of the smoke and fumes out of Coulson's mouth but the other man didn't have that protection.
"Who the fuck are you?" the man asked.
"Nobody you need to know," Coulson said as he finished climbing out of the window and balanced carefully on the ledge. "Give me your case, you won't be able to carry all of that."
The hat still shadowed the other man's eyes but Coulson could feel the reluctance as he hesitated and finally nodded. "Don't drop it."
Coulson had to keep all his concentration on edging along the narrow ledge, clinging to the wall with the leather case constantly trying to throw his balance off. He didn't see his companion climbing out of the window with the duffle bag because all his focus was on reaching the platform at the top of the metal stairs. When he'd finally clambered over the railing around it, he turned in time to see the stranger calmly moving along the ledge as though he did this kind of thing every day.
Maybe he did. Coulson was trying not to feel any curiosity about him and failing miserably.
He jumped over the railing easily and there was a fierce grin on his grimy face when he turned to Coulson.
"You're kind of crazy," he said. "That...that is not something normal people do."
Coulson shrugged and began jogging down the stairs. The wall of the warehouse was warm to Coulson's touch, even through his black gloves, which was a very bad sign. He could hear the clang of the other man's boots on the metal as he followed and Coulson ran faster, almost jumping down some of the steps.
"I guess crazy goes with the black mask and the burning," the other man said as he clattered behind Coulson. "Jesus fuck, they said England would be boring. I would have preferred boring."
There was a loud whoosh and then the night sky was lit up by flames as the roof of the warehouse fell in. Coulson swore and jumped the final few stairs, unsurprised when the stranger did the same, and then they were running. They were halfway down the street when the staircase collapsed with a loud ringing crash and they were rounding a corner when there was a loud boom followed by the distinctive fizzle and crackle of fireworks going off.
"Figures there'd be a fireworks depot next door," the stranger shouted. "Where are we going?"
Coulson jogged to a stop and turned around, waiting until his temporary charge also slowed and halted not far away. The stranger's clothes were dark with soot and his eyes glittered in the shadow of his hat. In the bright moonlight, Coulson could see outline of muscular arms under his shirt and the sweat glistening on his throat where he hadn't done up all the buttons. Coulson's eyes lingered there for a moment before he shook himself and sent up a silent thank you for the concealing mask.
"We're not going anywhere," Coulson said firmly. "I'm going one way, you're going a different way. We won't meet again. Good night."
He held out the leather case and the stranger took it wordlessly. Coulson didn't turn around, didn't look back, as he jogged away and began the process of slowly retracing his path back to his clothing drop and then home.
No footsteps followed him and Coulson breathed a silent sigh of relief that he'd avoided that particular complication. The last thing he needed was a stray following him home.