“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.”
“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.”