‘Weren’t you scared?’ Tommy finished cleaning the wrench and laid it on the table.
Flint leaned back in his chair. ‘Scared?’
They all looked at him as he sat, his hands clasped behind his head, his gold tooth glinting in the arclight. His top lip curled into that sardonic smile they had all become familiar with.
‘Scared?’ he repeated. ‘Of course I was bloody scared! The thing had me trussed up like a stuck pig.’
‘More like a sacrificial lamb, I thought.’ Jessica winked at Tommy. ‘Defenceless and waiting its fate.’
‘Whatever bloody creature I looked like,’ said Flint, holding up a tiny metal pin that he’d extracted from beneath one of his fingernails. ‘I was most definitely not defenceless. One more minute and I’d have freed myself and ripped the bloody head off that thing.’
‘I apologise for stealing your glory, William.’ Jessica placed her hand across her chest and bowed in Flint’s direction.
‘Tell us again, please.’ Serena had been sitting throughout with her chin propped up by her hands, flitting her gaze between Jessica and Flint. ‘Spare no details.’
‘Our esteemed leader,’ said Flint, ‘descended into the crypt, spattered in mud and blood and gods knows what else. She cut me free with her sword, and that was that.’
‘Was there not another of the creatures?’ Serena looked to Jessica. ‘You said before there were two of them, ma’am?’
Jessica waved her hand. ‘I have told you not to refer to me in that manner, Serena. I am Jessica, plain and simple.’
‘You hear that, lad?’ Flint gave Tommy a nudge. ‘She’s plain and simple. That from her own lips, no less.’
Tommy laughed, but not too loud. ‘Mr Flint, I don’t think that’s quite what she meant.’
‘There were indeed two of the beasts,’ said Jessica, choosing to ignore Flint’s jibe. ‘One, I despatched in the graveyard.’
‘With the railings,’ said Serena, nodding. ‘And the other was in the crypt beside Mr Flint, no?’
‘I told you, I was about to deal with that one myself.’ Flint had placed the metal pin between his teeth. ‘It was all under control.’
‘The other ghoul,’ said Jessica, strolling around the table in the middle of the dining cabin, ‘was poised to run one of its talons across Captain Flint’s exposed throat.’
Serna shuddered. ‘He would have been killed.’
‘Most swiftly, if he was fortunate. Else the filth-ridden monstrosity’s disease would have taken hold of him.’ She stopped behind Flint and smiled down at Tommy and Serena. ‘Then I would have had yet another foul creature to despatch.’
‘Do it now. Please, I implore you.’ Flint shook his head. ‘It would be a mercy killing, believe me.’
Tommy sniggered. ‘You took off its head, you said?’
‘I did indeed. With one blow.’ She walked back to her seat and sat, smoothing her skirts. ‘Sorry for all the blood, William.’
’Took me bloody ages to get the stain out my shirt.’ Flint’s face was stern, but his eyes betrayed his mirth. ‘The facilities on this bucket of steam are sorely lacking.’
‘I take exception at the implication.’ The voice was metallic, as if speaking from inside a box hidden from sight. ‘There are ample facilities beside the ballast.’
‘He’s only joking, Zed.’ Tommy’s chair scraped on the parquet flooring as he stood. ‘Pay him no attention.’
‘I am a shining example of the best the scientific minds of the Empire have to offer,’ said the voice. ‘I am a vessel of high repute, not some travelling laundromatic contraption.’
‘And we know that.’ Tommy’s voice was soothing. He had walked to the control panel. ‘And we are extremely grateful for all that you do for us.’
Serena leaned close to Jessica, her voice low. ‘He knows it is only a machine, yes?’
Jessica smiled. ‘He does. But he and the Zephyr have developed quite a bond over the past few months. There are few who are able to control the ship quite so well as Tommy.’
If the engineer had heard their words, he did not acknowledge it. ‘We’ll be back in London soon. I’ll see to it you get your pistons polished and your accelerators seen to, would you like that?’
A hiss from beneath them, like a sigh.
‘That would be most appreciated. It has been quite some time since I have enjoyed the attention of someone who knows how to treat me.’ Another hiss. ‘With the sole exception of you, Master Smith.’
‘Shall we leave the pair of you alone to get even more intimate?’ Flint rose, clutching his stomach in mock disgust. ‘Perhaps a little piston polishing of your own, Tommy?’
‘William.’ Jessica coughed. ‘That’s enough. Let us not forget who led us into this sorry mess in the first place.’
‘I had it on good authority the diary was in the chapel,’ Flint said. ‘You know that, and you agreed to the damned mission.’
Jessica softened her voice. ‘I know that. No-one is blaming you. We must all make sure we take the utmost care in future.’
‘Including Harris.’ Flint’s tone couldn’t mask his distaste.
‘Yes, including the Commissioner,’ said Jessica. ‘And the entire Department.’
‘Why do none of the people who work in the department come with us on missions, please?’ Serena stared wide-eyed at Jessica.
‘Because they wouldn’t last a damn second!’ Flint exploded with laughter. ‘They would be waving their fountain pens around and screaming like newborn babes.’
‘There is an aspect of truth to the captain’s words,’ said Jessica. ‘Those who work in the Department seldom leave its offices and corridors, and when they do it is to travel little further than to their homes south of the river. They have not seen the dangers which we are expected to face. But they have knowledge of things we do not, so together we are stronger.’
‘As long as that knowledge is accurate,’ said Flint, his fists balled on the table in front of him. ‘I’ll be having words with that bloody pen-pusher the next time I’m there, so help me.’
‘Then perhaps it is better,’ said Jessica, ‘that this time the Commissioner asked to see me alone.’
‘Something wrong?’ Tommy turned from the control panel. ‘Do you know what it’s about?’
‘I do not, sadly. I received the communique only yesterday evening. A matter of delicate urgency, apparently.’ Jessica looked to each of them in turn. ‘Though you may rest assured I shall share whatever it is with you all. There are no secrets in The Black Diamonds.’
‘Indeed not,’ said Flint, relaxing and staring at Tommy. ‘Only grease monkeys.’
‘Perhaps you would like to operate the Zephyr?’ Tommy held his own, staring back at Flint.
‘Oh good heavens, no,’ said the disembodied metallic voice. ‘I respond only to the attentions of the skilled hands of a gentleman, I’ll have you know.’
They all laughed at that, even Flint, as the tell-tale lurch from the cabin told them that they had ascended above the clouds.