Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Miss Wilde and The Removers

Author’s Note: The Removers were borrowed from Victorian-era mystery story “The Leopard Lady,” by Dorothy Sayers. Special thanks to James Ballard-Smoot and Jennilee Cookman for the use of their steampunk personas for this tale.

“Miss Leah J. Wilde,” she said, automatically, and then flinched.

Leah had never been a good liar, and so when the stout fellow with the bushy mustache introduced himself, her name came to her lips without any thought. She should have lied, and knew from the triumphant smile on his thin lips that he had been hoping she would forget.

Mr. Smith was portly, barely able to squeeze himself into the narrow train seat, and a bowler hat had been smashed down onto his head so that it appeared to have sprouted from his scalp in lieu of hair. He continually blotted his sweaty face with a soaked handkerchief.

The man beside him was his opposite: tall and slender, clean-shaven, his complexion sallow. Mr. Smythe, as he was introduced to Leah, was a rough-looking sort, with a jagged scar across his stern jaw. He regarded Miss Wilde steadily with dark, hooded eyes.

Apparently deciding to dispense with subterfuge, Mr. Smith smiled eagerly. “This will all go much more smoothly if you simply hand the device over to us,” he said.

Leah frowned, contemplating her meager options. She kept a small, single-shot pistol in her reticule, but the purse was on the vacant seat beside her. She doubted that she could reach it without the enormous Mr. Smythe reaching across to grab her, and besides, even if she did manage to get off a shot, she could hardly kill them both with one bullet unless she was profoundly lucky.

Deciding that her best option was to buy time--hoping that perhaps another passenger or the ticket agent might enter the car and thereby save her--she lied, as she ought to have done from the beginning. “I don’t have it. It would be foolish to carry it about with me, don’t you agree?”

Mr. Smith guffawed, his face turning bright red. He exchanged a look of contempt with Mr. Smythe and then, wiping his chin with his handkerchief, declared, “Lies! We know you have it! It would be foolish to leave it behind, since you can never return to St. Louis to get it!”

Determined to sell the lie, Leah shrugged. “It’s in a safe-deposit box at the money-changer’s office. I never wanted the damn thing for myself; only that my former employers shouldn’t have it.”

Mr. Smith was not convinced. “Mr. Smythe will check your luggage, just to be certain.” He waved one fat hand at his companion.

The giant stood, unfolding himself from the tiny seat, and went for the overhead compartment. With him standing directly in front of her, Leah’s view of Mr. Smith was blocked--as was his view of her. Thinking quickly, she snatched the purse from the seat and fumbled for the pistol.

Before her shaking hands could find the gun, however, Mr. Smythe reached down and grasped her wrists. “What’s this?” he demanded in a deep voice that resonated through the tiny compartment.

The purse slipped from Leah’s lap and thunked heavily to the floor. Mr. Smith reached down casually and picked it up, withdrawing the tiny pistol and waving it triumphantly. “Oh, Miss Wilde, you really should be more wise. If you insist on threatening us with weapons we’ll have no choice but to hurt you!”

Mr. Smythe chuckled maliciously, looking down at Leah, who writhed uselessly in his grip. She knew she was doomed, but couldn’t just give up; she kicked at him and thrashed against his hold. He laughed at her, and behind him Mr. Smith laughed too, delighting at their apparent success.

Suddenly the giant released one of Leah’s hands so that he could clutch at his stomach. She scratched his other wrist until he let go with that hand as well, and then she wriggled away from him as he collapsed forward, groaning, toppling like a mountain after the a dynamite blast.

Pressed against the window, Leah watched in horror as the huge man sank onto the seat she had just vacated. His mouth was frothing with white spittle; his eyes were wide and frightened.

“Daniel?” Mr. Smith asked, reaching for his friend, and then he, too, collapsed into convulsions, his mouth foaming.

Leah screamed. She could only watch as her attackers writhed in apparent agony. She began crying for help, terrified that if she was left locked in the compartment with them that she would soon take ill with the same apparent disease. Mr. Smith looked up at her, his eyes huge and glistening, reaching one trembling hand up at her as if she could somehow save him.

The door to the compartment flew open, and a man entered. He was tall, handsome and dark-skinned, dressed in a suit with a leather corset buckled over the tailored shirt. He barely spared a glance for the men rolling on the floor, instead looking pointedly at Miss Wilde.

“In need of assistance?” he asked calmly, with a tight smile.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with them!” Leah cried, gesturing to Mr. Smith and Mr. Smythe.

“Never fear,” the dark man said resolutely. “They’ve been poisoned.”

“Poisoned?” Leah repeated dumbly.

The stranger nodded and stretched out a hand to her. “Come with me, and I will explain everything to your satisfaction.”

Leah looked down at her would-be killers, men she had moments before loathed, but now pitied. She glanced back at the dark stranger, with his outstretched hand, and was afraid of him. Surely if he knew that the men had been poisoned, then he was the poisoner!

“You can’t stay here, Miss,” he said, gesturing to the bodies on the floor. “If I wanted to hurt you, I wouldn’t have poisoned your attackers, now would I?”

“But how did you know?” Leah demanded, bewildered.

The dark man smiled with what could only be described as wicked glee. “I know these men. They are Removers, men of a sordid type who work for those with the money to have troublesome people removed. I did the world a service in removing them.”

Leah straightened against the window. “Then you don’t know why they were sent after me?”

From down the corridor, a cry went up, and the dark man glanced down the hall and then back to Miss Wilde. “We have to go, now. Come on!”

Leah sprang forward, grabbing the pistol out of Mr. Smith’s limp hand. Then she reached under the seat she had previously occupied and pulled out a wicker picnic basket.

“We don’t have time!” the stranger called, reaching down to grab her by the arm.

“Trust me, you have time for this!” Leah replied as he hauled her out of the compartment and into the corridor.

***


Miss Wilde’s fingers would not loosen their grip on the picnic basket. The ascent to the airship had been a terrifying ordeal, in which she and the dark man were strapped into a harness (together, which was rather more intimate than she was accustomed to being with a total stranger) and hauled upward, away from the train, while deputies fired up at them from the train’s caboose.

While they dangled helplessly, bullets thankfully flying wide of their position, the stranger attempted to introduce himself. “I’m Captain LaGrange. Tony,” he shouted over the receding sounds of gunfire and the train’s noisy engines. Leah could not find any words in response; she made only a terrified whimpering sound.

Leah’s arms ached as she lowered the heavy basket to the floor of the airship’s hold, where the crew had dragged her and the Captain. They stood around awkwardly now, a rag-tag group both male and female, many with soot-smeared faces, several wearing goggles that obscured their eyes from view, staring at Miss Wilde as if she were a peculiar creature.

The Captain gave some orders to the crew that Leah couldn’t hear, and they dispersed. They were near the airship’s engines, because the a mechanical rushing sound filled the nearly-empty cargo hold, making it difficult for Leah to think.

The Captain pulled her to her feet and pried the basket gently from her clutching fingers. She cried out at the sharp shooting pains in her joints as she released the basket handles. To her surprise, the Captain put one arm around her shoulders, and gently guided her to the door the crew had used.

The interior of the airship was much nicer than Miss Wilde had expected. The floors were carpeted and the walls papered in lush colors. The Captain guided her to a small room that must have been his office, as it was appointed with a large, gleaming wooden desk and chairs of various styles. One of the chairs was on its side and the Captain righted it calmly, gesturing for Miss Wilde to take a seat.


Leah sat hesitantly, her eyes glued to the basket the Captain still carried. He hefted it onto the desk and turned to her with a smile. “So what’s in this basket that’s so important?”

Miss Wilde stiffened. “You do know, don’t you?”

Captain LaGrange shook his head slowly. “I know there are reports in the newspapers of a researcher’s assistant stealing a mysterious device from her employers. A very valuable device, in fact. And I know that my ship’s psychic sent me in search of you, and promised that you carried something she called The Wheel of Fortune.”

Leah wanted to scoff--who believed in psychics anymore, in this age of science?--but instead she was baffled into silence. The Captain was watching her closely, and his eyes narrowed at her reaction, his smile broadening. “Miss Dashwood said the Wheel of Fortune changes men’s destinies. I’m familiar with your employer’s work, and I translated that to mean that perhaps you were carrying a time machine.” He looked at the basket like it was a treasure chest; Leah could almost see the glitter of diamonds in his eyes.

She considered lying, but realized quickly that she was once again low on options. Even if she lied, he would open the basket. He was armed and she was basically a hostage on board his airship.

With a sigh, she said, “It’s a prototype, of course. Hardly perfected. It moves the user through both time and space, simultaneously, whereas the previous model succeeded only in bridging time. It’s a dangerous piece of equipment, and I took it because I found out who was funding the project. I know that stealing it won’t stop their progress entirely, but it will set them back some time, maybe long enough for someone to see what they’re doing. I had hoped to get it to the government...”

The Captain didn’t seem to be listening to her anymore. He opened the basket and drew out the blanket-wrapped device. It was heavy, and he had to lay it on the desk to unwrap it. Slowly he peeled back the blanket, as if savoring the moment of anticipation, and then it was laid bare, and his face was full of triumph.

“Do you know how to use it?” He asked, without tearing his eyes away from the series of metal cogs, tubes, vials and dials.

“Well...yes,” Leah said honestly. “But as I said, it’s a prototype, and unsafe by any measure. And it requires a particularly rare mineral, which must be produced in a laboratory, and which will be quite expensive and difficult to obtain. I don’t recommend using it except in a time of dire need. There’s a distinct possibility that we could all be turned into slime.”

“You’ll have to perfect it then.”

“Me?” Miss Wilde stuttered. “I’m no physicist, just a lab assistant, I don’t know the first thing about...”

The Captain waved off her concerns. “Professor Watt will help you. Between the two of you, I’m sure you can get this thing running. Now, I’m sure you’re exhausted--let’s find you some food and get you into your quarters.”

“My...quarters?”

“Well I certainly can’t let you sleep in the cargo hold, can I?” the Captain said, chuckling. “Welcome to the crew of the Airship Archon.”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Miss Dashwood and the Mysterious Key

A gentleman of excellent breeding and taste always notices when a lady is bored or shy and makes an effort to include her in the party. Thus, it was not surprising that a well-dressed dandy, with a trim moustache and a very impressive top hat, noticed very quickly that Miss Dashwood was standing in the corner, looking lonely. Noting that her clothing was expensive, though perhaps not of the latest style, and that her countenance was pleasing, though her skin appeared to be slightly wind-burned, he determined that he could engage her in conversation without loss to his social standing.

“Excuse me, Miss, I am Mr. Belcher,” he said by way of greeting.

Oh good, thought Melora, smiling with private glee. A dandy!

“Miss Melora Dashwood,” she introduced herself, her voice a pleasant Southern drawl, extending one gloved hand.

“Are you feeling quite well? I could not help but notice you standing here alone,” he said solicitously, laying a ghost of a kiss across the back of her hand.

Melora’s eyes twinkled. “I am quite well, I assure you. How kind of you to inquire. I am only a little shy, but I quite enjoy watching the guests and I am very happy here in my corner.”

Some gentlemen would have taken this as an indication that she wished to be left alone, but not Mr. Belcher. There was something mysterious sparkling in her luminous green eyes and the curious way she smiled, as if at some private amusement. Intrigued, he leaned in closer, being considerably taller than she, and complimented her on her top hat.

“Oh, thank you,” she said, her smile coy, one hand going to the hat, her fingers toying briefly with the brim. “It’s not nearly so fine as yours, I think.”

“But mine does not possess such handsome goggles,” he replied, without missing a beat.

Melora laughed, a surprisingly low chuckle. “They are more practical than decorative. Easily found in the most common shops, hardly unique.” She blinked, her eyes closing and opening with deliberate slowness, showing off her long, dark eyelashes against her pale cheeks.

Mr. Belcher was caught for a moment in that long blink, admiring her dark lashes and creamy skin, but quickly regained his composure. He groped for something else to compliment without seeming overtly sexual; it would not do to tell her that her skin reminded him of fresh milk, or her eyes the color of bright emeralds. Inadvertently he found himself staring at her chest, where her low decolletage revealed an expanse of pale flesh, the soft mounds of...

“What a lovely key!” He exclaimed, tearing his gaze away from her assets. Luckily for him, an antique key, blackened with age, hung from a black ribbon around her neck, contrasting beautifully with the white of her skin.

Melora, fully aware his roving eyes, touched the key self-consciously and smiled. “Thank you. It is an antique.”

“And what does it open?” Mr. Belcher asked, desperate to maintain a socially-acceptable conversation topic.

He could have sworn then that her eyes flashed with something--was it rage? triumph?--before she replied, her voice still that deceptively pleasant drawl. “A mysterious box. No one knows what it contains, but it is very old.” Her voice had taken on a dreamy quality, and her eyes became unfocused, as if she were staring at something he could not see. “It could contain vast wealth, or a horrible curse. It can never be opened and unleashed upon the world.”

“Vast...wealth?” Mr. Belcher repeated, bewildered.

Melora’s eyes focused on his face and she smiled, like someone just awakening from a pleasant dream. “Nothing is free, Mister Belcher,” she said. “The key was entrusted to me because I am not tempted by treasure.”

“Not tempted?” He asked, sounding rather like a parrot. He shook his head, annoyed at how easily this strange woman seemed to have hypnotized him. “What kind of wealth are we talking about?”

To his surprise, she laughed, but it was not a flirtatious, girlish giggle or a man’s guffaw. It was a sensual sort of chuckle, somehow heavy with mysterious knowledge and promising carnal delights. It made him shiver like a winter draught in an otherwise cozy room.

“The wealth doesn’t matter, because the box will never be opened,” she said cryptically.

“You might consider what that kind of treasure could buy, Miss Dashwood,” Mr. Belcher replied, his mind creating a huge treasure chest stuffed with pirate gold and sparkling gemstones. “It could buy a great deal of comfort for a woman like yourself, or the lesser peons of this world.” He added that last quickly, hoping to make himself sound like the charitable sort, and appeal to her soft nature.

She narrowed her eyes at him, pressing her lips together as if considering this. “And you would help me consolidate my wealth, for a small fee? Am I correct?” There was amusement in her voice, each word precisely measured for sarcastic effect.

Mr. Belcher drew himself up and tried to look offended, attempting to hide his surprise that she had sussed out his intentions so quickly. “I am comfortable myself, Miss, with my own estates. I have no need to poach a gentlewoman’s fortune!”

“Of course not,” Melora replied apologetically. “I am sorry. Forgive me the presumption.”

Satisfied with her apology, but still strangely unnerved, Mr. Belcher nodded and tugged at his moustache a little. “Of course not. But wherever did you find this mysterious box? Some Ancient Egyptian tomb?” He scoffed at the notion, and she laughed, which led him to chuckle, and add, “Did you have to solve the mystery of a magical pyramid and fight a mummy?”

She wiped tears of mirth from her eyes and, once she had caught her breath from laughing, said, “Oh, no, nothing like that. The box was obtained on one of our Material Acquisition and Relocation Missions. We're specialists. Alas, no mummies were involved, though I suspect they might have been for the original acquirers of the item. How disappointing for us, I've always wanted to meet a mummy! No, all we had to do was seduce a statesman, disable a couple of security guards, pick a lock, and banish a protective spirit that, incidentally, said some really nasty things about my Ma! Of course, I do not wish to mislead you, my part in the acquisition was small, and my exploits limited to the destruction of the spirit and removal of a curse. The Captain picked the lock and Miss Van Eycke seduced the statesman, though I do not truly know what became of the guards...”

While she spoke, Mr. Belcher’s face went from amused to surprised to confused. “But...how...” he began.

Melora frowned. “Oh dear. I believe I’ve said too much.” While her male companion struggled to grasp the particulars of her tale, she nodded soberly to someone outside of his range of vision, and when he turned to see the person to whom she was nodding, he felt a little prick on his hand. Behind him was only shadows, and when he jerked back to look at Miss Dashwood he found that she was blurring, and becoming smaller, as if disappearing down a long, dark tunnel. And then he was in darkness.

***

“I told you not to do this again,” a voice said, decidedly male, a hushed baritone.

“You know she can’t help herself,” said a woman’s voice, deeper than most, but definitely female. There was the rustle of crinolines against silk.

“If I cannot open it, I should at least be allowed to talk about it,” a familiar voice added. She had a Southern accent, and though she was whispering Mr. Belcher realized groggily that it was the mysterious Miss Dashwood.

He tried to sit up to reprimand the strange woman, but when he attempted to move he found his limbs did not cooperate. A frustrated gurgle issued from his throat, the best he could do at speech.

“He lives!” Melora said triumphantly. Mr. Belcher managed to open his eyes a crack--it took enormous effort, as if his eyes had been glued shut-- and found himself gazing up at the offending woman, no longer wearing her top hat, and a dark-skinned fellow, very difficult to see with the midnight-blue sky framing his head. A third face, this of a pale, red-haired woman, wearing the kind of clothes one would expect to see at a Masquerade Ball, appeared over him and then, snorting derisively, moved away.

Seeing the woman’s clothes made him think of the party. Where had they taken him? Had they poisoned him? Would he ever regain use of his limbs? In his anger he attempted to ask these questions, but again, all that resulted was an infuriating gurgle, and a slight twitching in his hands.

“He’ll recover soon,” The dark man said, nodding to Miss Dashwood.

“We’re terribly sorry to do this,” she said, though she did not sound particularly apologetic. “I hope you’re not afraid of heights.”

The dark man crouched by Mr. Belcher’s head, and leaned in so close that he could smell roast beef on his breath. “Tell no one that you met Miss Dashwood. Take the secret of her existence to your grave. Remember that we let you live when we didn’t have to, and that we have no compunctions about changing our minds on that issue. We know your name, and where you live; we have killed men over smaller mistakes. Understand?”

Mr. Belcher gurgled in fear.

“He means it,” Melora added from further away. The dark man turned to glare at her, and she sighed and stood up and wandered away, like a child bored with a toy.

The man stood, walked to Mr. Belcher’s feet, and grasped his ankles. While he was dragged across the floor, Mr. Belcher heard the creaking of ropes, as if aboard a great ship, and wondered how they had gotten to the ocean from land-locked St. Louis. Unless he’d been unconscious for longer than he realized?

He could hear the two women talking under the sound of his clothes sliding against the ship’s deck. “If you can’t learn some self-control you won’t be allowed to go to parties anymore,” the red-haired woman was saying in her low voice. Miss Dashwood replied contritely, saying “I tried to be good. He landed right in my lap! He even asked about the key. I’m not good at lying.”

“You’re not good at resisting temptation,” the redhead replied, a statement that Mr. Belcher would wonder about for the next few hours. He would find it maddening, in light of Miss Dashwood’s story about the key and the mysterious treasure chest, as he spent hours drifting aimlessly above the Earth, unable to control his parachute, the wind pushing him this way and that, until at last he recovered some use of his arms and was able to guide himself to a rocky landing somewhere outside of Atlanta.

By that time, the airship from which he had been unceremoniously tossed had disappeared into the night sky, taking with it the be-damned Miss Melora Dashwood and her mysterious key.

Author's Note: edited for formatting, since blogger hates tabs.

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